Monday, November 7, 2011

Players understand they're on alert after firing of Payne

Team was shocked, looking forward to challenge of working with Hitchcock

ST. LOUIS -- Barret Jackman is in his 10th season with the Blues. Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller has spent the same amount of time in the league. What's the difference between the two?

Miller's played for the same coach (Lindy Ruff) from his inception into the league. Jackman is now going on his fifth coach.

Some may not view that as out of the ordinary, but considering Jackman is now on his fourth coach in six seasons, there's little to no time to get settled in with one leader.
(Getty Images)
Defenseman Barret Jackman (5) will play for his fifth coach in 10 seasons
tonight when the Blues host the Chicago Blackhawks.

It's always a shock when a player gets traded or a coach gets fired, which was the case Sunday night when the Blues made their fourth coaching change in six seasons with the firing of Davis Payne, who was replaced by 59-year-old Ken Hitchcock.

But lofty preseason expectations have seen the Blues stumble a bit out of the gates, temporarily being curbed. Players were surprised to see their young leader let go and realize that the accountability lies within the locker room doors.

"It's tough. You develop a relationship with the guy," the 29-year-old Jackman said of Payne. "He's a young coach but he really had a vision for what he wanted to do. For some reason, it just wasn't translating. Now we get a guy with a lot of experience and a lot of games under his belt. Hopefully he could drive this team to the next level."

Many in the hockey world believed the Blues (6-7) would make the next step and become one of the Western Conference's top teams and become a playoff team. But they currently sit in 14th place (ahead of Hitchcock's last team he coached in Columbus) with 12 points.

"At the end of the day, we're the guys that have got to go out and play," defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo said. "You can have anybody in the world that's the best at it to teach you and give you the right information and right things to do. At the end of the day, it's the players that have got to go out and perform. We've got to hold ourselves accountable."

There have been games in which the Blues look like they're ready to leap in with the big boys. But then there are games that leave some scratching their heads. Yes, it's early. Yes, it's only 13 games but the inconsistency had management worried of another fallback and action was taken.

"Saying it didn't work out's a little unfair to Davis and what's gone on so far," said winger Jamie Langenbrunner, who played for Hitchcock in Dallas. "I think we've shown glimpses of what's possible. I think (Payne's) done a fantastic job considering the circumstances. I don't think this was opening the schedule that anyone envied and we got through it a game below .500. Not exactly where we wanted to be, but we're not far off. That's the message being sent in here. ... Just being close isn't good enough and that's fine."

So in comes Hitchcock, who brings a different element to his style of teaching. Besides Langenbrunner, Hitchcock has had experience coaching Chris Stewart, Colaiacovo and Alex Pietrangelo for Team Canada, most recently at the World Championships.

"We're getting an experienced guy. He's been through so much," Pietrangelo said of Hitchcock. "... He's a guy we can bring in and be a leader. He's been there and seen it all. It could be a good thing for us.

"I think it makes the transition a little bit easier for myself and everybody else with him. We've just got to go out there and play the same way. You can't really change too much but at the same time, we're excited to have him."

Hitchcock went through his first practice with his fourth franchise (he's also coached in Philadelphia besides Dallas and Columbus) on Monday afternoon. Instead of trying to change too much, he absorbed all he could and will change on the fly, if necessary.

"Pace and good flow to the practice," winger Alex Steen said. "It's Day 1, so we're still getting to know him. He's getting to know us. We'll evolve here together, but we've got a game here tomorrow and we need to start focusing on that."

Added Hitchcock, "For me, it's just get tempo up and get the ... energy back on the ice. We've got to play tomorrow, so we don't have much chance. I don't want to change very much right now. There's details that I can do, even in-period, before games, things that aren't going to require a lot of thinking. Just little tweaks. I don't want to change very much until I get a good read on what's going on here.

"Two things that stood out to me were the size of the players. Either I'm getting smaller or they're getting bigger. ... They practiced hard today. There were a lot of drills today and and they were done very quickly. I thought they were excellent today."

Hitchcock will try to fix a woeful specialty team unit that ranks last on the power play and 27th on the penalty kill as well as get No. 1 goaltender Jaroslav Halak back on track.

"Look at our record now. We're 6-7," Halak said. "I'm sure it wasn't easy for management to make this decision. We move on. It's hockey. You never know what's going to happen. Payner was a good person, good coach. I just wish him well. There's nothing we can do about it right now. Just move on.

"Obviously I'm surprised it happened this early. I think everybody in the locker room was. You never know when to expect the unexpected."
(Getty Images)
Jamie Langenbrunner (15) played for Ken Hitchcock in Dallas.

So the Blues will try to get this boat back afloat. And they'll do it with a Stanley Cup-winning coach. No time like the present to make things right.

"We weren't living up to expectations," Jackman said. "You always think things are going to get better the next couple days. It kind of came as a shock last night, but that's part of the business. We wish Payner well and I know he's going to have a long career ahead of him."

Added Steen, "Obviously you get a little shocked when changes are made. This is a win-oriented business. Right now, we're one behind .500. I think this team is capable of a lot more. In saying that, it's not putting the blame on (Payne) or anything like that. Everybody has to look in the mirror after this."

As for Hitchcock, Langenbrunner said the philosophy is simple.

"If you come and work hard, do what's asked of you then there's no issue," he said. "If you get off of that, then you're going to be called out on it. That's easy for guys to play under. They should be able to understand that. Hopefully, it will push along to the next level."

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